On our kitchen wall there is a framed piece of paper dated August 1944, curiously signed by Neptunus Rex with the assistance of his scribe, Davy Jones. The certificate’s border has images of mermaids, sea monsters, giant turtles, and whales. Neptune is there with his trident welcoming the recipient into the “Order of the Deep.” It is my father’s, a relic from his early days in World War II and is given to sailors when they first cross the equator into what, for most, are parts unknown.
At the end of March 2020, our family was moving into unknown waters and not with particular grace. My younger son, a seventh grader at the height of middle school angst, was upset that he might lose his BMX bike sanity valve. My oldest was morose having left his snug dorm room and his tight-knit group of first year college friends. My husband was anxious about getting meat, supplies, and masks, about which masks would protect us best. I was numb, slightly traumatized, having been locked away from my father a few weeks earlier.
I had in mind that this locked down life would last 10 weeks, back to normal by June. Hard time-limited, a blip in a lifetime. But as the news became more dire, we learned that my sister-in-law, living on the 30th floor in Manhattan, told us she was teaching her child to cook eggs should she be hospitalized and our niece be left alone. Then, another important person in our life lost their hard-won sobriety to anxiety and isolation. And in our comfortable space, with no one losing a job or any other concrete hardship, we began to yell:
Older son: Back after a while. I’m going to hang with X, Y, and Z.
Me: No, you’re not! Don’t you understand this is a pandemic?
Older son: Bye. (Repeat after the protests of the summer began.)
Younger son: I can’t live without my bike. You can’t tell me I can’t ride my bike with my friends. I hate this. I hate you.
Husband, in an aside: I’m going to hide the bike in the neighbor’s garage.
Me: I am fine going to the grocery store.
Husband: Do you have a mask?
Husband: Is it the N-95? You really need to wear the N-95.
Fraught, tense, unhappy, we were rigid in the different ways we thought pandemic risks should be managed. When I think about how we managed to survive, one word keeps bubbling up: submission.
A charged word, submission suggests a sexual fetish or meek wives catering to overbearing husbands. But some writers consider it a spiritual discipline that corresponds with a particular freedom. The book Celebration of Disciplineputs it like this:
“What freedom corresponds with submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society…In the discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it…” (Foster, page 111)
As a family, we began to be successful managing the pandemic when we started to submit: first to the requirements of the virus, then to uncertainty, and finally to each other. We decided the oldest son should live on his own so that his risks could be his and not ours. We prioritized the younger son’s mental health over fear, allowing him to bike with friends as long as he was outside the whole time, masked, armed with hand sanitizer, and willing to shower immediately upon entering the house. My husband found filters for my cloth masks. I agreed to put off trips that I thought were safe, but my family did not. We found new hobbies, new recipes, and took pleasure where we could: with friends around a fire, in new TV shows, good books, and long walks. We learned to wait and live with the knowledge that sea monsters were around, but that perhaps they would leave us alone if we moved slowly and deliberately, together.
At one point during his almost two years in the war, my father was reunited with his brother, also a member of the Order of the Deep. Uncle David was a Navy medic in Australia and my dad’s ship docked there for repairs. How they knew that they were in the same place, I’m not sure–perhaps by way of letters from their mother. But somehow my dad brought his brother onto the ship to have dinner with his shipmates. I asked what that reunion was like. “Best thing in the world” was all he said. So much heart in his brief answer; in deep water, it’s all about the people, whether in safe harbor during wartime, around the fire pit, or the zoom room.
During the pandemic, we had to submit to a much bigger loss, that of the young sailor turned ancient mariner, my dad. We laid him to rest in April after his death from COVID last July. None of it was exactly how I wanted it to be – not his actual lonely death, when I was 10 minutes away and so wanted to be with him. Not the small memorial held immediately after his passing, where I could not offer even a snack or glass of wine to those in attendance, and not the long-awaited burial which was still inaccessible to many friends who wanted to say a proper goodbye. But now that he is truly at rest, it all feels, if not perfect, then perfectly okay. Death rarely comes how we want it to, perhaps the ultimate challenge for the discipline of submission. For me, when I quit railing against the unfairness of it all, I became free to see the beauty. The small memorial was in the most heavenly spot in San Antonio with people who gave so much of themselves to honor him and help me. And just a few weeks ago, he was buried on a show-stopping spring day in what must surely be one of the most sacred cemeteries in the world. The chances of him being alive today, COVID or not, are slim. At this point, he would be six months shy of 101. No matter how it all happened, he is okay and so are we.
Late last spring, as the yelling and anxiety was reaching a fever pitch, my boys and I found ourselves in the kitchen in some sort of standoff. The certificate caught my eye giving me a rare moment of parental inspiration.
Me: Creatures of the Deep, (Yes, reader, this is how I sometimes refer to my sons.)
Grandpa Jim was 19 when he went to war. He did not know how long it would last or even where he was going. He did not know whether he would survive. He had to rely on his training and learn new skills every day. He had to submit to not knowing what would happen, support those around him, and lean on them in return. He had to tolerate being scared and uncertain. He couldn’t do whatever he wanted to do whenever he wanted to do it. It wasn’t ‘fair’ for him either. But he answered the call of that moment, and we have to find a way to do that too.
Them: Silence…then head nods. Okay, mom.
It wasn’t completely smooth sailing from then on, but we’d found a North Star to keep us on course. As the pandemic waves appear to be receding—my youngest son just got his first vaccine dose—I’m sending out a thank you to my father and maybe to Neptunus Rex. We’ve come through the storm, avoided most of the sea monsters, maybe gained a little wisdom along the way, and earned a place in the Order of the Deep.